A CANADIAN RAPID REACTION
FORCE THAT COUNTS

by John Eggenberger, Ralph Fisher, Richard Gimblett and Lew MacKenzie

Major General (ret’d) Lewis MacKenzie served 36 years in the Canadian Army and Canadian Armed Forces, including nine years in Germany with NATO and nine peacekeeping tours of duty. Richard Gimblett’s 27 years in the Navy included Gulf War service and strategic analysis. Ralph Fisher served as an engineering officer in the Navy for 28 years, including detached duty with the navies of Britain and the United States. John Eggenberger’s military service included 25 years as a fighter navigator.

 

Much has been made of late as to Canada’s loss of influence in world affairs, of how as a nation we used to “make a difference” but seem not to any more.  The reasons for this are legion, and too many to explore in this short piece.  Most observers, however, agree that the loss of influence is directly tied to the declining fortunes of the Canadian Forces (CF).  While agreeing with that assessment, we aim to further the discussion by contributing some practical markers down the road to recovery.  The authors draw upon a wealth of military experience from the three services and come from political backgrounds across the spectrum.  What we hold in common is pride in Canada, and the conviction that we must regain our position of influence, to once again “make a difference” in the resolution of global injustices.

Our proposal is rooted in the now developing adjustment of military capabilities by our NATO allies to a world fundamentally changed by the ending of the Cold War.  Led by the United States and Britain, they have responded to the need to contain and suppress the rise of regional conflict and international terrorism by equipping their forces for effective and rapid deployment to operational theatres by sea and air.  Given the state of our land, sea and air forces, this may seem an innovative if not radical action.  However, like many others concerned for our country, its national interests and values, we see it as a logical, incremental progression of capabilities now inherent in Canada’s military, essential to their assigned tasks, and well within our capacity as a nation.

Simply put, we propose that the Canadian Forces establish a Rapid Reaction Force (RRF), deployable primarily by sea in purpose-built amphibious ships that will sail within days of the order, and be ready for operations upon arrival in-theatre.  For reasons that will become apparent in the discussion below, we feel that the primary fighting unit most likely to gain military success and diplomatic influence is what we like to term the “Basic Old-Fashioned Infantry Brigade” (BOFIB); we have affectionately styled the amphibious ships “Sea Horses”.

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A fuller discussion of this proposal, entitled “An Appreciation Meeting the Needs of Joint Overseas Deployments of Canadian Forces in Support of Our Foreign Policies,” has been prepared in the traditional format of a Military Appreciation and readers interested in obtaining a copy may find it and related material posted to the web-site of the Vancouver Island branch of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI): http://www.rusiviccda.org.  Our purpose in this present article is to set the context for that Appreciation, and to outline some of its broad findings for the general reader.

Without getting into detailed and potentially distracting arguments as to specific military hardware, some existing and developing platforms do illustrate the possibilities.  During the initial rebuilding period, as the CF adapts to the new concept of operations and becomes familiar with the new equipment, the force would be developed in battalion strength (800-1000 troops), embarked in a ship somewhat like the 25,000 ton San Antonio-class LPD (Landing Platform Dock) (unofficial contacts lead us to believe that one could be leased-to-purchase fairly easily from US sources). 

Ultimately, it should be constituted around a larger vessel such as the American Wasp-class LHD (a 40,500-ton general purpose amphibious ship) capable of embarking nearly 2000 troops, their armoured vehicles, and supporting transport and attack helicopters and aircraft.  Other options include the British Ocean and Albion classes. Aircraft types for consideration include the Apache attack helicopter, which has just completed evaluation testing aboard HMS Ocean (apparently with great success), and the tilt-wing Osprey, which undertook cold weather evaluation at the Canadian air base Shearwater, in Halifax.  Descriptions of many of these ships are available on the web site at www.naval-technology.com/projects.

The concept is hardly new.  The Royal Canadian Military Institute put it forward in A Wake up Call for Canada: the Need for a New Military in the spring of 2001, as did Professor David Bercuson of the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at about the same time.  (At least one of the present authors [Gimblett] scoffed at the idea then, as being just too visible a demonstration of force for any Canadian government to be truly comfortable with, let alone afford.)  Indeed, in the late 1960s all three “environments” of the newly unified CF explored the notion as the basis for the restructuring of the Army into Mobile Command (a young Subaltern MacKenzie prepared a staff school paper on the idea), but in the prevailing operating conditions of the Cold War world, there was no need for an independent Canadian military capability.  It was frankly an idea ahead of its time.

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All that was before September 11, 2001.  Even if the world did not change on that date, the Al-Qaeda attacks certainly crystallized many trends that had been developing since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  In his year-end report for 2002, Chief of the Defence Staff General Ray Henault declared that, despite the needs of homeland security, expeditionary operations were to be the continuing rationale for the Canadian Forces.  Then Defence Minister David Pratt said (with no dissent from the Opposition) that in the next decade the CF must expect to engage in the sort of operations it has experienced over the past decade.

What then of those operations?  It is our feeling that, for all the self-satisfaction they have brought to Canadians, they have garnered little appreciation from our allies and coalition partners, let alone have they had a truly useful impact upon the situations they were sent to address.  Canadian politicians have been able to gaze pleasingly at a world map studded with little maple leaf flags indicating current missions, but the truth is that the majority of those have been small groups of observers or supporting communications and logistics staffs subsumed within larger coalition forces. 

In general, when Canadians think of things military, the tendency is to do so in terms of “Army” formations, but the Navy and Air Force experience has not been much different, with their respective frigate deployments to USN carrier battle groups and humanitarian airlift missions by Hercules transports.  For those not engaged in classic “peacekeeping”, the trend also has been for company-sized groups (200 combat soldiers) to be attached to larger allied formations.  The obvious exceptions are Bosnia and Afghanistan, but there too appearances have been deceptive.  Although each involved as many as 2000 “troops” at a time, a closer look reveals those both to have become fairly sedentary, infrastructure-heavy missions, requiring the establishment of overseas “bases” out of which “combat” troops might have constituted a third of the total force.   Frankly, when our forces go overseas, for all their success in the occasional tactical actions, they just do not pack much of an operational punch.

Concurrently, several military trends have become apparent over the past decade.  For one, the growing number of missions pointed not to an era of post-cold war stability, but rather the need for stabilization operations by primarily western forces in an increasingly anarchic world.  Another important development that did carry over from the previous era is general recognition of the need for all other coalition partners to be interoperable with United States military forces.  The progress of Coalition operations in Afghanistan and Iraq points to another trend – the increasingly inhospitable operating conditions of foreign missions.  Without secure initial operating bases ashore, future missions are more likely to require forces capable of establishing a beachhead on some foreign shore, into which additional friendly forces can then be airlifted.

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A specific lesson for Canada from the recent operations is the need for the CF to be “interoperable” with our American allies, yet at the same time being capable of independent action.  Others were drawing lessons also: as European countries have come to recognize the unlikely need to fight over their borders (much as Canada and the US enjoy), they have developed a more outward focus.  And with the majority of recent missions having occurred in the world’s littorals (again, Afghanistan being the exception that proves the rule), Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy are taking the lead in re-structuring along amphibious lines (Australia can be included in the list also).

Sea-basing gives enormous flexibility to politicians as well as military commanders.  Politicians will appreciate the “wiggle room” that comes with the ability to dispatch a force fairly quickly to demonstrate intent, while the actual mission can be determined as the force is en route and the situation evolves.  For the military commander, the “hotel” or base facilities are self-contained, as is the logistics supply train, and the capacity to have the joint force headquarters embarked means no need to employ forces protecting a base: by significantly reducing the “tooth-to-tail” ratio, the majority of a force can be dedicated to the military mission ashore.  Finally, by definition, the offshore amphibious ships provide a ready exit strategy, not reliant upon the limited and unreliable capacity of chartered airlift.

Several examples pertain in which sea-basing was a potentially fruitful option, but the most recent is the best.  During the Afghanistan campaign over the winter of 2001-2002, the PPCLI were left cooling their heels for over two months (to the embarrassment of both the military and politicians) while their mission to Kandahar was sorted out (transportation details were the most problematic).  Meanwhile, the Canadian Naval Task Group was given command of the force protecting the United States Marine amphibious ready group (ARG) off Pakistan engaged in operations ashore.  A similarly constituted Canadian ARG could have joined that force seamlessly, and being roughly the same strength as the American, could have brought Canada much greater recognition and enormous influence in the prosecution of the campaign.

We hasten to note that none of this is meant to replace the existing Canadian Forces, but rather to add to them.  We subscribe to the near-universal consensus that the CF must increase by about a third, to at least 80,000 personnel.  There will always be a place for the “traditional” forces – an Air Force for the air defence of North America; the Navy will still require area air defence destroyers, frigates and submarines to protect the amphibious forces; and there is no intent to re-constitute the Army as a Marine Corps.

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At the same time, while the BOFIB – Sea Horse combination demands decidedly new capabilities, those are nothing terribly radical.  Our Navy has operated large ships in the past, our earlier aircraft carriers occasionally having been employed on just these sorts of operations (author Ralph Fisher had first-hand experience onboard Magnificent to Suez in 1956).  For the Army, it will require primarily a change in attitude, adjusting to the deployment cycle of a naval task group, ready to sail on ten days notice, rather than the ninety days currently established for a main force.  On the organizational side, it demands some re-structuring to allow formed units to be organized for air and sealift, and to disembark in fighting order. 

It is appropriate at this juncture to note that no one should anticipate Canadian Forces to engage in opposed landings, but the troops should still be ready for action on arrival, not subject to a long period of getting established and able when needed to defend evacuations of troops and civilians.  Of all the services, it is perhaps the Air Force that will require the greatest change to its concept of operations.  It has been many decades since it has engaged in the sort of ground attack operations approximating direct fire support.  Attack helicopters will be a new departure, but the capabilities inherent in a weapon system such as the Apache are much needed, whether from a sea-based platform or a conventional land base.

The price tag for these capabilities would seem steep, except that so much of the present CF requires re-building in any event, and similar funds would have to be expended.  Those can be further rationalized if the initial cost of large items such as the ships is amortized over their expected lifetime of as much as five decades.

Lew MacKenzie knows from experience that coalition military commanders would be ecstatic to have a self-contained Canadian rapid reaction force of brigade size at their disposal.  To sum up, it would consist of three battle groups of 800 to 1,000 men each.   Two would be transported by sea; the third will be light and deliverable by air landing with a company that could alternatively be delivered by parachute.  The initial priority in the re-building phase will be one battle group by sea, given its high value in support of our foreign policy.

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The BOFIB – Sea Horse Rapid Reaction Force will restore the capability our Forces require to resume punching above their weight in serving the cause of peace, freedom and humanity around the globe.  That in turn will give Canada the military credibility needed to exercise diplomatic muscle in meeting the challenges of the 21st century, just as we did in previous generations.